What do we tell the teachers? – Pt. 3: About Academic Language

My intention was to follow up previous posts about rethinking language(ing) with something about the implications of these new thoughts on second language acquisition pedagogies, but sometimes the universe has other plans. I recently had an article published in Miriada Hispánica about how the construct of academic language serves to exclude students acquiring English in school from the broader content curriculum, and was on my way to present this paper at the biennial LatCrit conference when my social media feed blew up with the latest from critical applied linguistics scholar Nelson Flores’s blog, The Educational Linguist. In his post, Dr. Flores critiques the way academic language is framed as something that emergent bilinguals don’t have, thus feeding stereotypes of these students and their language practices as deficient, and calls for a moratorium on the term. Professor Flores hit the nail on the head in terms of showing how students’ languaging readily accomplishes complex tasks like arguing with evidence, making comparisons, and conveying abstract concepts, and scholar/artist/mentor Dr. Christian Faltis added through social media that framings of “academic language” as a deficit perspective date back 50 years while critiques of such framings go back quite far as well.
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Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist tossing in my two cents, because it’s clear by the persistence of these ideas that the construct of academic language isn’t leaving us and teachers do need some way of addressing the school-related language practices with which students need support. My goal in this post, then, at the risk of beating a dead horse, is to clarify the critiques about dichotomizing academic and social language, as well as offering a tangible framework for thinking about academic language that doesn’t devalue students and their language practices by acknowledging how historical power relations inform what gets called “academic language.”

In addition, let me clarify that no one is denying that languaging practices can vary from classrooms to hallways to playgrounds to homes to churches to wherever else children use language. The point that those of us critiquing academic language are making is that this variation is non-hierarchical. That is, students’ multiple linguistic varieties can serve any necessary functions that they need them to in accordance with the interactional norms of their speech communities. Thus, if we want students to add new language practices to their repertoire, we would do better to give them opportunities to engage those practices authentically and leveraging their familiar linguistic resources. Moreover, we can seize this opportunity to question why particular features ascribed to academic language hold the prestige that they do as a first step towards having students’ language practices play a larger role in curriculum.

This begins with getting a firm grasp of what people mean by academic language and why it can be either problematic or liberating.

Dichotomies and Deficit Thinking

Some constructions of academic language, such as Bernstein’s restricted and open codes or Jim Cummins’ BICS (basic interpersonal communication skills) and CALP (cognitive academic language proficiency) and contemporary academic vs social language framings suggest that academic language is a thing apart from language outside the classroom. This kind of work points to the features of so-called academic language, like increased use of passive voice, nominalization, and dependent clauses to suggest that emergent bilinguals need explicit direct instruction in these features in order to internalize them. We can represent this construction visually:
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Sadly, this is the framework that is all too often reflected in curriculum that would have students isolated for academic language instruction rather than acquiring the target language forms in the authentic contexts in which these forms occur. It is, for example, the difference between supporting students to acquire the discursive practices of AP Chemistry by providing language scaffolds in an AP Chemistry class and excluding students from this valuable content by instead placing them in ESL or academic language development classes in which students review the vocabulary and syntax of chemistry texts without engaging in scientific inquiry and reasoning.

A Continuum of Language

Despite its persistence, this dichotomy approach got (and continues to get) torn apart pretty swiftly by researchers. Plenty of scholars pointed out that social language not only could accomplish the same functions as academic language and address complex concepts, but also that academic language itself was not as universal and fixed in its features as we’d like to imagine if we’re going to design whole classes around teaching its characteristics. Moreover, scholars are very quick to point out that these are better thought as separate registers, rather than separate languages. Instead, scholars offered that language existed on a continuum wherein some features of language from students’ lives outside of school could inform and fulfill academic tasks, and some of the supposed functions exclusive to academic language were likewise present in students’ lives outside of school (for instance, argumentation and abstract thinking). At the extremes, we could imagine features that don’t cross contexts, like profanity (although I’ve observed some very insightful and profound discussions in secondary classrooms in which text or speech used curse words strategically and provocatively) and discipline-specific vocabulary (although again, I’ve seen students argue about movies or sports using terms they’ve picked up in physics classes).
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Languaging Across Contexts

This continuum framework is an important step in the right direction, but it still narrows our field somewhat. First and foremost, it still leaves us with an oversimplification into two categories: social and academic language. Any simple reflection on our own languaging reminds us that in different classrooms, with different teachers, or on different school-related tasks our languaging shifts in tone and register (for example, did you talk to your hip young teachers the same way you would talk to the principal?). Likewise, across different circles of friends, adults, or purposes, our languaging outside of school is also far from a single, fixed entity (for instance, do the discursive practices of a locker room look and sound like those in a church, or a grandparent’s house?). Moreover, we also know that these languaging patterns can change over time.
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This framework maintains the overlap of the continuum perspective, again highlighting that students’ familiar linguistic resources can inform their learning and support their fulfillment of academic tasks. By adding the multiple spheres and blurred boundaries, this further suggests that social and academic language practices are multiple (the various registers used when talking to siblings, elders, peers, on playgrounds, in classrooms, etc.) and dynamic, meaning that they can influence and reshape one another. By reframing academic language as languaging in school, we highlight that this language is itself very contextualized, but in the discourse practices of the school rather than in some more universal context of a discipline or in some “standard” or “prestige” variety that derives its place from the imposition of the language practices of socially dominant groups. Moreover, this framework suggests that if we remove the stigma attached to languages other than English and to non-standard varieties of English, there is no reason that students’ languaging should impede learning and no reason for not having it inform curriculum.

What do we tell the teachers?

It’s a pretty exciting time to be in the field of educational linguistics. Scholarship around language, multilingualism, and language learning is evolving in some interesting and sometimes challenging ways, depending on people’s starting points. A lot of fundamental concepts are being reimagined – from what language is to how additional languages are learned to what it means to be bilingual – and the application of these new ideas holds promise for students in light of decades of rather fruitlessly adhering to previous understandings. But there are a few caveats.

First of all, a lot of the new thinking around language and language learning implicates popular societal opinions about race, class, and nationhood in the marginalization of particular language varieties and their users, meaning that even more than before there is reason to look beyond the classroom and a requirement to wrestle with uncomfortable topics such as legacies of slavery, imperialism, and white supremacy in order to effect change. Second, while a lot of these new schools of thought emerged specifically from research in schools and have students in mind, uptake has been pretty slow on the educational policy and programming side. In part, this falls on us academics for not doing enough to reach beyond the ivory tower, and to be sure part of the challenge is also getting through to institutions and individuals heavily invested in the status quo (such as the Testing Industrial Complex), but even among receptive audiences such as teachers and administrators who have seen traditional ways fail their students year after year, it can be really hard to put into practice theories that challenge a lot of what was taken for granted before. So the question at hand for all of us in critical applied linguistics or bilingual education who muck around in this new liminal space, is what do we tell the teachers?

Before getting to the heart of things, a quick acknowledgement is in order. When I say “new” theories, I should qualify that by saying that these are just starting to gain traction outside the academy in the last decade or so. In fact, people like Vivian Cook, François Grosjean, Yamuna Kachru, Alan Firth, and Johannes Wagner have been advancing these ideas for well over 20 years, arguing to move bi/multilingual perspectives into a more normative forefront and to recognize social experiences as mediators of language learning. Like I said, though, it’s been a pretty recent development that these perspectives have made their way into conversations about curriculum design and language proficiency frameworks, which is why we still find ourselves struggling to explain this all and make it actionable.

So what does it mean, especially for teachers under the surveilling gaze of the American accountability regime, to design curriculum around students’ languaging, rather than their language? To recognize the idea of individual languages as a social construction and vestige of the formation of modern nation-states? To situate language learning in social processes and interactions rather than in students’ individual minds? To see the intersections of race, class, nationhood, gender, and all their accompanying privileges or stigmas in a person or group’s languaging? In my upcoming posts I’ll hazard some ideas based on my own research and that of people much smarter than me in terms of what these new (“new”) ideas of language and SLA actually mean and how they could improve education, but in the meantime, welcome to Language & Equity, and thank you for taking the time to read this.